The winner of CNN’s prime-time debate between likely 2020 presidential contenders Sens. Bernie Sanders and Ted Cruz was clear: Sen. Elizabeth Warren.
The Massachusetts Democrat punctured the political noise in a defining way late Tuesday night when Senate Republicans silenced her reading of Coretta Scott King’s years-ago criticisms of Trump’s attorney general pick, Sen. Jeff Sessions.
Warren was voted down by Senate Republicans – “The senator will take her seat,” said the presiding officer – in a dramatic display of political clumsiness coming amid concerns over Sessions’ past views on race – and at the start of Black History Month.
The response was swift and unrelenting.
“READ THIS. Tonight the GOP silenced @ SenWarren AND Coretta Scott King. Below is the letter,” tweeted actress Kerry Washington to her nearly 4.5 million followers.
Twitter delved into the absurdity of a Senate procedure, Rule XIX, that forbids senators from “impugning” the character of another senator, even if it means calling out allegations of racism in a letter from the widow of a slain civil rights leader.
And then there was the made-for-T-shirts quote from Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell, R-Ky., as he justified the vote against Warren: “She was warned, she was given an explanation. Nevertheless she persisted.”
“Nevertheless she persisted” quickly popped up on mock campaign gear on Twitter.
By midday Wednesday #ShePersisted overcame #LetLizSpeak as a trending hashtag on twitter.
The outcome produced strong short-term gains for Democrats who are struggling to channel powerful voter unrest over Trump’s agenda into common cause.
Fundraising was surely robust – “we WILL make our voices heard,” Warren dashed off in an appeal to donors.
But in the longer run it remains unclear if Warren’s voice is the best for the party as it tries to rebuild after the 2016 election that delivered Trump to the White House.
Democrats continue soul searching over their electoral losses, particularly the drift of formerly Democratic blue-collar voters into Trump’s orbit in states like Pennsylvania, Michigan and Wisconsin.
House Democrats were meeting later Wednesday in Baltimore for an annual retreat where that conversation was expected to dominate.
Sanders beat Democratic rival Hillary Clinton during the primaries in some of those states, but it is unclear if the populist message he – and Warren – deliver can work more broadly with a general election audience.
Other Democrats are trying to rebuild the party in a way that relies on that populist message but without alienating more moderate suburban voters who also moved toward Trump.
At this point, though, Democrats are happy to take their gains when they can, and Warren on Wednesday was making the rounds of media interviews in a victory lap of her moment.
Other senators took turns reading from King’s letter on the Senate floor, and none of the Republicans dared rebuke them.
As for Cruz and Sanders, fresh from their CNN debate on Obamacare, they, too, were talking about Elizabeth Warren
Cruz, the Texas senator who was the last rival to Trump in the 2016 GOP primary, called her attacks on Sessions “slanderous.”
“When the left doesn’t have any other arguments, they go and just accuse everyone of being a racist,” he told Fox News.
And Sanders stood by Warren’s side. “It is unconscionable that Sen. Mitch McConnell silenced Sen. Elizabeth Warren because she read a letter from Coretta Scott King,” the Vermont independent tweeted.